Sunday 21 June 2020

Wastelands (UK 2020: Dir Kemal Yildirim) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020

The genesis of this extraordinary film is another made by Yildirim back in 2017 called Saudade (the title is a Portuguese noun that describes the longing for someone loved, now lost, with a knowledge they might never return). The short features just three people: Alice (Holly Rose Durham); her former boyfriend Tris (Yildirim); and Alice's father Willhelm (Sean Botha). Alice is grieving the loss of both her mother (dead) and the end of the relationship with her boyfriend; her father has now met someone else and formed a new family, and although Alice clearly longs for Tris's return, flashbacks to their time together show the extent of their dysfunction; it's a relationship that seemed to survive on abuse and frantic (and sometimes violent) coupling. The depth of Alice's depression is the meat of the film, turning the casual viewer into an unwilling voyeur; it's a very raw 20 minutes.

For his latest feature, Yildirim takes all three of the characters from Saudade and creates something that could be seen as an embellished remake or even a possible sequel. Alice returns, here played by a different actress, Natasha Linton, looking slightly older than her counterpart in the previous film. Alice is still plagued by depression and insecurities and her longing for Tris. Large parts of the movie show Alice, alone in her mother's home (which she has inherited), going through depressive cycles of sleep, eating, masturbation and self harm.

We learn that on inheriting the house, which had been occupied by Willhelm and his new partner Dolores (Nicola Wright), Alice asked them to leave, after which Willhelm fell gravely ill and spent some time in a home. But Dolores is now separating from him, and therefore Alice needs to care for her housebound father at home. Alternating between hatred for him, but also the need to provide selfless care, Alice's life briefly brightens when Tris comes back into it. But this happiness is shortlived when the toxicity between them re-ignites. And at the same time Alice learns that both her father and her mother knew all the time about their daughter's true destiny, a role which will provide 'The Open Door' and a relief to the grief and hurt that occupy her life.

Alice (Natasha Linton) going through it in Wastelands
Natasha Linton gets the unenviable task of taking the extremes of Alice's character and stretching them over 90 minutes, and she does this incredibly well. Her performance also saves the film from potentially feeling exploitative - a little like Björk's character of Selma in Lars von Trier's 2000 movie Dancer in the Dark. But I was also reminded of the films of Jane Arden, particularly her 1972 feminist tract The Other Side of the Underneath, which mixed mysticism and therapy (and a boatload of LSD) into a story about a group of women unravelling.

Because Linton seemed older than her short film predecessor, I felt the reduced age difference between father and daughter a little jarring (and while Botha's depiction of his illness is very convincing - scenes where he tries to feed himself are almost too unbearable to watch - he just didn't convince as an older man). As well as Yildirim returning as Tris, several other characters are introduced as the film progresses, but the movie always returns thematically and visually to Alice - the camera is never far from her.

And what a camera! Wastelands is beautifully photographed - every shot is perfectly placed and subtly lit, one of those films where the meagerness of the budget is clearly an inspiration for, rather than a hindrance to the production. And, unlike so many independent films, the use of soundtrack is sparing and equally inventive. This is an impressive, baffling and consciously oppressive (and expressive) work that might offer a 'last reel' reprieve, but the journey to get there is excoriating. Excellent work.

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